how to make handwritten text illegible?
June 17, 2005 8:53 AM   Subscribe

How to erase, obscure, or otherwise render handwritten text illegible? Imagine you were to have several thousand pieces of paper that you must keep. Further imagine that these papers had handwritten identifying information (say, name and address - mostly in pencil but sometimes in ink of various colours), that you must make illegible. What's the easiest and most effective way to make that handwriting unreadable? They will later be scanned by machine, so covering with stickers is probably not a good solution.
posted by Zetetics to Grab Bag (12 answers total)
do you have to change the original? that seems a pity, and also makes the job harder (since you need to worry about whether you can peel off stickers, read from the other side etc).

one solution would be to make copies; use black marker pen on the copies; and copy those. that would leave you with the originals untouched, pretty secure censorship, but a pile of paper to throw away.
posted by andrew cooke at 8:59 AM on June 17, 2005

Big black magic marker. Permanent & effective. Sit at home in front of the TV & just strike through.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:12 AM on June 17, 2005

Does it have to be unreadable on the originals or just on the scans/copies? If it's just the copies you're worried about, then black marker is the way to go. White-out will probably gum up the scanner. If it's the original you're worried about, you'd need to thoroughly scribble over the writing with the same pen/pencil the writer used, or even better, xacto out the written bits.
posted by teg at 9:19 AM on June 17, 2005

A note on scribbling over the originals, if that's what you have to do. It also helps to scribble not with the sort of random zigzags and swirls that some people use but with actual letters (i.e., to just start writing the alphabet and various nonsense phrases over and over again on top of the handwritten bits). A careful eye can sometimes pick out a piece of a letter even if you thoroughly scribble, so you want to increase the noise: signal ratio.
posted by willbaude at 9:37 AM on June 17, 2005

The writing is on the first page of a form that we have to send out of our custody for optical scanning of the data (which is in the form of circles marked in pencil) and we're probably stuck with altering the originals. Marker and photocopying is clearly the most effective but also a lot of extra work and I'm not sure how it might affect the scanning.
The big black marker alone is not always effective - viewed from some angles, handwriting can still be perfectly legible. There's the same problem with simply erasing pencil. The impression on the paper is often still readable. Also, black marker bleeding though the paper would be very bad.
I'm considering a combination of erasing, marker, and correction tape.
I'm also wondering about getting a large stamp in a fine cross-hatching pattern. I think I've seen that be effective.
posted by Zetetics at 9:38 AM on June 17, 2005

Black magic marker can often leave underlying text still readable in my experience. Especially with printed stuff. The toner from laser printers and copiers creates ever-so-slightly raised areas where the toner is placed. I agree with andrew cooke that you will have to photocopy the redacted pages and then toss the originals if you want to securely delete them. Could use a x-acto knife, but probably would have the same problems with scanning as stickers.
posted by jduckles at 9:40 AM on June 17, 2005

There are marker pens made for this purpose. The ink is almost like paint and the nibs come in a variety of sizes up to around an inch square. Can't recall the name, but I have used them in the past.
posted by fire&wings at 10:15 AM on June 17, 2005

Call the optical scanning people and ask them if they can successfully scan photocopies.

If they can, then go to the photocopier and figure out where the offending information will sit on the glass, and clear-tape a bit of cardstock over that area.

If they can't, and you're really serious about protecting the people's privacy, then what I would do is sit down with new forms, transcribe the data onto forms with no identifying information, and send those off.

Mutilating the originals seems like a bad idea. You never know when you'll want to correlate information from the form data with information about the people giving the data. But I am a social-science nerd.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:37 AM on June 17, 2005

Good coverage:
A chisel tipped paint pen, but they are expensive and annoying.
Griffen liquid shoe-shine wax.
Abrading the paper (sanding sponge cut to size) might upset the scanning people, but it's used for censoring Japanese Playboys.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 12:15 PM on June 17, 2005

In the vein of willbaude's post for reducing signal:noise - If your office has various rubber stamps, get a few different ones (address tamps probably work best) and pads of ink. For each area you need to censor, ink and stamp over the text with different stamps while rotating the stamps at intervals. This should create random noise over the text without being as "predictable" as a crosshatch stamp. Use a blank sheet of paper to protect areas you don't want stamped. Let dry.
posted by junesix at 3:24 PM on June 17, 2005

Forget black marker. It fades, and through it you can see the original print if you look closely.

I used to work for an attorney general's office, doing (among other things) criminal defence disclosure. We had to make DAMN sure that personal information, regarding witnesses, police officers, etc, were thoroughly vetted and could not be retrieved by any means.

This involved:
i) striking out the offending material with a china pencil (also called a "china marker", just to confuse
ii) photocopying the vetted documents, destroying the originals.

Of course, you can photocopy first, vet, then photocopy again if you want to preserve the originals for your own use.
posted by dreamsign at 2:31 AM on June 18, 2005

If you do mark the original with a black marker, be careful of bleed-through; you'll need to make sure nothing's beneath each form you black out, and that you've got something underneath to prevent the ink from staining whatever surface you're working on.
posted by WCityMike at 6:31 PM on June 18, 2005

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